The theme of this year’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty is ‘acting together to empower children, their families and communities to end poverty’. ODI researchers reflect on progress made and ways forward.
Children are over-represented in poverty. They make up around half of the ‘extreme poor’ in the world but are just one-third of the population. 19% of children live on less than $1.90 a day, compared to less than 10% of adults.
We see similar results for multi-dimensional poverty, which considers material deprivation rather than household income or consumption. Children are over-represented in households that are poor according to the multidimensional poverty index (MPI); 34% of children in the developing world are MPI poor, compared to 18% of adults. The commitment to measure child poverty is more crucial than ever.
Methodologies for measuring child poverty are improving. For example, studies that consider household level consumption have shown that spending on children indicates much higher levels of poverty for them within the family.
Multidimensional approaches for children are now also consistent with national approaches in many countries in South Asia, reaffirming that child deprivation levels are linked to high child poverty rates.
Recent progress in identifying global child poverty supports the Sustainable Development Goals, which included children in the poverty goals and targets. Meanwhile Tony Atkinson’s report on Global Poverty ensures that children are a priority for World Bank poverty profiles.
This progress also means that when we look forward to 2030, we will be well aware of child poverty in global poverty profiles. This will be essential: with poverty increasingly concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, child poverty will make up even larger proportions of ‘extreme poverty’.
In the quest for eradicating child poverty, a focus on empowering vulnerable children that does not take family circumstances and community contexts into account will reap limited gains.
Consider Ado, in Ethiopia, who completed just two years of school before getting married at age 13, or Halima, in Bangladesh, who worked as a day labourer at a young age to support her family. Empowering girls and boys by building knowledge about their rights and life skills and supporting them to participate in decision-making processes may have intrinsic benefits. But it will be largely ineffective in promoting poverty reduction without complementary measures targeted at poor households.
One such complementary measure is providing support through ‘growth from below’, which is how most poor households manage to sustain escapes from poverty. Growth from below, as described in the Chronic Poverty Report on Growth, often involves a combination of agricultural and non-farm growth, as well as migration to towns for work or enterprise development.
Its benefits reach children particularly where women are economically and socially included in households and communities. Assistance from relatives and friends also importantly help offset education and health costs for children.
Providing support through growth from below involves enabling smallholder agriculture, the informal sector, the rural non-farm economy, and migration. It also requires building poor people’s assets and human capital, and supporting the economic empowerment of poor women.
The latter, moreover, is a critical link in helping ensure escapes from poverty benefit child wellbeing in contexts where women remain the primary caregiver responsible for human capital investments of offspring.
Promoting gender-inclusive growth from below can speed up current poverty reduction, while nurturing improved child well-being conducive to sustained poverty eradication.
The 2019 UN SDG Report highlights the substantial progress we have made in reducing poverty over the past 25 years – notably in the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty, with remarkable results in East and South Asia. However, the pace of poverty eradication is decelerating, and development financing has stagnated in relative terms.
Critically, poverty remains concentrated in low-income countries (LICs) and in specific communities within them. 46% of extremely poor people are children under the age of 14, which has implications for the trajectory of future poverty reduction.
This poses a challenge as well as an opportunity. The challenge is that LICs have higher population growth rates; ODI research estimates that between 400 million and475 million will remain in extreme poverty by 2030. LICs also have a relative paucity of data, policy and finance to deliver inclusive development.
Furthermore, LICs already face high fiscal stress and limited capacity for improving their financial commitments – at least in the immediate future – to meet the levels needed to achieve their SDG targets.
I propose a two-pronged strategy to turn this challenge into a window of opportunity, to practice (and not just preach) development interventions differently.
1. Increased resource mobilisation
ODI research indicates that half of the financing the end of extreme poverty gap can be met domestically through efficient taxation policies and practices. The other half would need to come from bilateral and multilateral donor contributions – particularly those aimed at poorest countries, such as IDA replenishments
2. Targeted resource allocation
There is extensive empirical evidence that development initiatives focused on children, notably young girls, have a multiplier impact on the development trajectory of the community. The avenues span from access to education, health, water and sanitation, to security from exploitation such as child labour and child marriage. By targeting and prioritising these known pathways out of poverty, we can hope to draw higher returns from existing levels of development financing.
Around the world, poverty in crisis contexts is on the rise. In 2017, fragile and conflict-affected states hosted 57% of the world’s extreme poor (living on $1.90 a day or less) and if current trends continue, this could go up to 85% in 2030. Communities affected by poverty in these contexts – especially children – are highly vulnerable.
Shortages of food, water, shelter and money, disrupted schooling, forced early marriage, violence and abuse, and trauma are just some of the aspects of poverty children face. Humanitarian and development actors have a responsibility to work together to protect children from the worst forms of poverty in these contexts.
Poverty researchers, like me, also have a key role to play in framing global understanding of the distinct experiences those living in poverty (especially children) face during emergencies and protracted crisis situations.
We need to measure the extent of deprivations within and across the various affected communities (including refugees, internally displaced people, asylum seekers, and host communities) in addition to their long-term and potentially irreversible negative impacts.
Such a role is vital for three reasons.
- A new concept of poverty, which I have termed ‘poverty in emergencies’, will compel us to inject new thinking into how we measure poverty, outside of the conventional $1.90 lens, and albeit a richer measure, outside of the multidimensional poverty lens.
- The concept would galvanise key actors in the development and humanitarian communities to work together (as part of the New Way of Working and their efforts to strengthen the humanitarian–development nexus). It would push governments that host the affected groups, in particular, to design policies to end poverty in these contexts, combining both humanitarian and development priorities.
- The ‘poverty in emergencies’ concept would give impetus to the ‘leave no one behind’ agenda, which promises to empower vulnerable people, wherever they reside, and to pay special attention to specific groups that are left behind, including children and people caught in crisis.